Pubdate: Thu, 21 Jun 2018 Source: New York Times (NY) Website: http://www.nytimes.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/298 NEW YORK'S SMALL STEP ON POT ISN'T ENOUGH New York City's Police Department suffered a major embarrassment this spring when a New York Times investigation demolished the department's claim that people of color were more likely than others to be arrested on petty marijuana charges, because citizens in their communities complained more about pot smoking. The investigation found that even when complaints were factored in, the police nearly always arrested people at a higher rate in black areas. A new policy Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday will lead to fewer people being arrested for smoking marijuana in public. But the new approach - in which officers would usually issue summonses instead of hauling people off to jail - does not address the core problem of racial inequality and poses new dangers. Marijuana has been essentially legalized for middle-class, white residents, who are rarely arrested on minor pot charges, while smoking it is still being punished in communities of color. The disparity is indefensible. These petty arrests don't make the public safer, while defendants who get sucked into the justice system on low-level charges can have trouble getting jobs, attending school or entering the military, and run a risk of long-term entanglement with the law. Mr. de Blasio estimated that giving most people summonses for smoking in public would eliminate about 10,000 arrests per year - more than half the total number - which is clearly an improvement over the status quo. This would also move the city a step closer to abolishing a class of arrests that no longer even exists in some other states - including those where marijuana has been legalized. The new policy, however, is less than ideal. For starters, summons court judges often issue warrants when people forget their court dates, which can lead to those people being fingerprinted and dragged through the criminal justice system. There is something patently unfair about letting a petty offense morph into a criminal record that dogs a person for the rest of his or her life. New York City released its new plan a day after the New York State Health Department announced that a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would recommend that the state allow adults to use marijuana legally. This comes as something of a surprise, given that Mr. Cuomo last year described marijuana as "a gateway drug." Legalization would require approval of the State Legislature. Under ordinary circumstances, the conservative State Senate would most likely reject the idea out of hand. But the legalization of recreational marijuana that just passed in Canada - with which New York State shares hundreds of miles of a border - combined with legalization campaigns in neighboring states could force the normally hidebound Legislature to legalize the drug, if only to make sure New York gets a piece of an emerging industry. Meanwhile, critics both inside and outside law enforcement are rightly attacking the part of New York City's new marijuana plan that will continue to allow for the arrest of people on probation or parole who are struggling to re-enter civic life. On Tuesday, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said through a spokesman that such a system could easily intensify the already glaring racial inequities that come with marijuana enforcement. Assessing the damage done by petty marijuana prosecutions, Mr. Vance has said his office would decline to prosecute marijuana cases beginning on Aug. 1 - except in cases in which the Police Department can prove that the defendant represents a danger to public safety. Other district attorneys should follow Mr. Vance's lead.